India-China Military Drills: Doklam’s Lessons Have Been Learnt

(Retd) General Ashok K Mehta writes on the ongoing India-China ‘Hand in Hand’ military exercise in Chengdu.

Published14 Dec 2018, 03:16 PM IST
4 min read

Initiated in 2007 at Kunming in China, India and China kicked off the 7th edition of their annual military exercise called ‘Hand in Hand’ at Chengdu on 10 December 2018, which is to go on till 23 December.

This military engagement followed an MoU in 2006 signed between India and China, after their annual defence dialogue on “Exercises and Cooperation in Field of Defence”. India has been a laggard in defence diplomacy despite being wooed in 1991 on defence engagement by Lt Gen Claud Kickleighter from the US Pacific Command.

Two Perceptions of India-China Border

The US was the first country with whom any formal army exercise was held in 2002. So far, India has held military exercises with more than two dozen countries. It is most sought, as it is singularly the world’s most battle-hardened military having fought wars and skirmishes with Pakistan and China, engaged in counterinsurgency, counter terrorism and Left Wing Extremism (LWE), as well as being a leader in UN Peace Keeping Operations (UNPKO). Its out-of-area operations include Maldives and Sri Lanka.

Every type of terrain from the world’s highest battlefield in Siachen, deserts of Rajasthan, plains of Punjab massive Himalayan reaches and jungles of the northeast – is found in India.

With China, India has a 4,088 km long un-demarcated border along which – though no firing has been exchanged since 1967 – instances of border transgression have been rampant as there are two perceptions of the border: LAC as defined by India, and China’s version of the LAC. Lately,India has reported a number of intrusions: Depsang (2013) Chumar (2014) and Demchok (2015). Due to some of these incidents and the issue of stapled visas, exercises were suspended from 2009 to 2012 and in 2017 (due to Doklam).

The Name of the Game is CBMs

The two most serious incidents were at Sumdorong Chu in 1986 which took three to four years to resolve, and the most recent and the one with the biggest potential for escalation which occurred in 2017: the 73-day standoff at Doklam.

In 2015, PLA and Indian soldiers were involved in fisticuffs at Pangong Lake in Ladakh, after which the PLA spokesperson asked India to ‘strictly control its border troops’ adding ‘they were behaving as if they were on LoC (with Pakistan which is a live border)’.

After the Wuhan summit following the Doklam face-off, President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi provided strategic guidance to their armies for restraint, and additional CBMs were embedded to support the existing foundational agreements of peace and tranquility of 1993, 1996, 2003, 2005, Border Defence Cooperation Agreement 2012 and Working Mechanism on Consultation and Coordination of Border Affairs.

The name of the game is CBMs, with both sides resolved for ‘prudent border management’ with ‘predictability by maintaining strategic communications at all levels. Military exercises between the two armies (the two navies have participated in one fleet review and one passage at sea exercises) are seen to be the open sesame to building trust and confidence.

What the 7th HIH Exercise Will Comprise

The 7th HIH exercise is company-level, involving about 150 troops from 11 Sikh Light Infantry and supporting arms and services and soldiers of the Border Defence Regiment of PLA. The established format is a content planning exercise which was held in November, the actual arrival of troops and the joint exercise , visit by observer delegation and a lessons learnt report.

With each country an MoU exists for the conduct and logistics where sometimes service aircraft of invited country with military equipment is allowed. The present exercise is to test counter terrorism and humanitarian assistance drills.

The joint training will consist of welcome formalities, language assistance and familiarisation of troops with each other’s weapons, tactics and standard operating procedures. Live firing of weapons is an important component. Another subject is a desktop game depicting scenarios for counter terrorism and humanitarian assistance. Insertion of troops slithering down helicopters to destroy terrorist hideouts is an exciting feature of the programme.

‘A Great Wall of Trust’

There is a healthy competition with the exercises culminating typically in military style badha khana. PLA soldiers simply adore Indian rum, while their officers love Blender’s Pride. Indian soldiers are yet to develop an appetite for Maotai. Chants of ‘Bharat mata ki jai’ and the Mandarin equivalent of ‘China is great’ are exchanged. Two weeks of joint training promotes strategic outreach, military operation and inter-operability, and is considered the mother of CBMs. The Franco-German Brigade is cited as a zenith of trust.

Modi wants to build a great wall of trust and cooperation between India and China. New CBMs in the pipeline are the military hotlines between New Delhi and Beijing, and between the highest field commanders.

For the first time, cadets from Indian and Chinese military academies will visit each other. Doklam’s biggest lesson was to prevent differences from becoming disputes, and disputes from turning into conflicts. While HIH is a CBM of high merit, ironically, in 2017, India’s military conducted its own exercises – countering China’s attempt to capture Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

(The author is a retired Major General in the Indian Army and is founder member, Defence Planning Staff, revamped into the present Integrated Defence Staff. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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